Back in the 1920s and 30s the major American brands all looked to soak up the differing and growing market segments. Chrysler bought the Dodge Brothers company and also created a second brand to target the mid range price point. This article is about this creation, named after Hernandez De Soto, a Spanish explorer of the 16th Century.
The original De Soto was the first European to explore the Mississippi River. Walter P. Chrysler also had the Plymouth brand that recognised another European influence on early America. In 1928, the first De Sotos rolled off the production line – the De Soto Six was destined to be a classic. Chrysler had done its homework and by the end of 1928 had 1,500 dealers selling the car. To cope with this sudden dealer network, Chrysler built over 80,000 in the first year, all with 55hp motors. Seven versions were built with differing technologies and features. They had great names, the Roadster Espanol, the Faeton, the Sedan de Lujo to name but a few.
In 1930, De Soto added the 70hp Eight – the cheapest 8-cylinder on the market at the time. Over 20,000 were sold in its first year – despite a massive recession looming. As other brands slowed down or keeled over, De Soto went into marketing overdrive. They organised a Cannonball Run style stunt by driving one across the US in 10 days. Then they got one driven in reverse gear all the way across the continent! This last stunt was part of a design experiment: Chrysler had discovered that the air flowed better over the swoopy backs of the cars rather than the front where lights and other items hung off the body. This lead to the 1934 De Soto Airflow – one of a group of cars that took design in a big leap forward. The Airflow had an enclosed body – everything was built in to the bodywork such as the headlights and radiator, with the spare wheel fitted on the back rather than the side. Importantly the occupants sat further forward than earlier cars and the engine was placed in between the front wheels as opposed to behind them. This changed the weight distribution and therefore the handling and this is the design that most cars now have.
De Soto then took the car to Europe where it became such a hit that several French manufacturers copied some of the design concepts. Even Toyota in Japan copied the design. Sadly though, the American buyer wasn’t so thrilled with the car and overall sales slowed, so the company built a more conventional model, the Airstream with the Airflow dropped in 1936. The Airstream sold so well that De Soto started to climb back up the industry sales ladder. By 1939 Chrysler had invested millions on new tooling for the Custom, a model that harked back to the Airflow but in a more subtle way.
The Custom was another hit with advances in mechanical technology improving its performance and economy. In 1941 De Soto released the Rocket with a 100hp 6-cylinder motor and styling cues that would stay with the company for over ten years. This was the last car before the US was dragged into the Second World War and the De Soto plant switched to the war effort making aircraft components and tanks.
Civilian production started again in late 1945 with the pre-war models being built despite a lack of materials. De Soto tried to use a marketing message to cover the delays in delivery by saying that everyone wanted a new car! By 1950 De Soto were building the Sportsman, a hardtop car which was huge. The hardtop style was just like welding a steel roof to a convertible. 1950 was its best sales year ever with over 133,000 units sold.
Buyers loved the Sportsman even though it had an inline six to compete with the ever popular V8s from its parent company and other brands. De Soto joined the V8 brigade with the FireDome, a sister car to Chrysler’s FirePower. It was a very efficient V8 with classic De Soto styling. Although it sold well, Chrysler was struggling with production problems that reduced the volume of the factories and ultimately saw Ford overtaking it in the industry. Each new model was bigger than the last with more chrome and 50s bling. The Fireflite joined the FireDome in 1955 that was bigger again, with three-tone paint and used Chrysler’s Powerflite transmission and Hemi V8s.
Things were looking great for the division even though the car industry took a tumble in the late 1950s. De Soto was selling cars even though all its major competitors saw sales slow. However, Chrysler found itself in an internal battle. Dodge and Chrysler sales eased off, their low cost Windsor brand was fighting for a bigger stake in the company’s strategy and Imperial was spun off to compete head to head with Lincoln and Cadillac.
The slowing industry sales were a portend to a recession that hit the US, unfortunately at the same time that Chrysler’s production difficulties showed up as very poor quality control. De Soto’s were hit with the quality bug and buyers abandoned the brand very quickly. With sales dropping, so did production and to try and save costs, Chrysler closed the factory and merged production into another factory making Chrysler branded cars. This was when De Soto started to follow many other brands – the Firesweep was a rebadged Dodge with different trim and other models were based on Plymouth designs.
The last model, simply called De Soto for the 1961 model year was designed from the Dodge parts bin and wasn’t well received. Some say this was done to get rid of the brand to let Dodge, Plymouth and the new Valiant survive. So at the end of 1960 the brand was dead. Well, it was for car production in the US, however, less than two years after closing the brand, Chrysler signed a licensing agreement with a Turkish company to build Dodge trucks with Chrysler initially taking a 60% ownership of a new entity: Chrysler Kamyon. The De Soto name was used for several of the trucks and even today, the company, now called Askam, make a truck model called the De Soto, despite not having any connection with the current version of Chrysler.
Images from: AutoWeek and Leith Cars.